If Basque-born, German-trained Isasi's credentials remind us of Pablo Sorozábal, that's where the comparison ends. Unlike his near contemporary, Isasi wrote music resolutely 19th century in cast, never quite escaping the Wagnerian shadows, reflected through the prism of his teacher Humperdinck and - inevitably - Richard Strauss. Never needing to earn money from his work, he avoided the stresses and strain of Madrid's music theatre world, and so the broader Spanish public never became familiar with his output. Instead Isasi chose the contemplative quietude of the Basque town of Algorta, and by his early death his music was well-nigh forgotten.
Claves's 2001 Basque Composers CD of Isasi tone poems made many curious to hear more substantial works, and the 2nd Symphony - premiered in Budapest of all places, in 1931 - is certainly ample in scope and orchestral resource. Colourful, technically secure and attractive though its Straussian idiom may be, Isasi's 43 minute work falls down on musical energy and motivation. The hectic outer movements don't escape the charge of note spinning, the tasteful Adagio runs out of poetic steam too soon, the triumphant coda smacks more of hectoring than well-earned homecoming. The comparatively brief Scherzo, ear-catching string pizzicati, woodwind flirtations and all, is most attractive; but even here we look in vain for compelling symphonic thought.
It would be easy to dismiss Isasi as yet another "cosmopolitan" composer, too wrapped up in Germanic forms and procedures, too studied to open up to the spontaneity of his own voice. But after the sound and simulated fury of the Symphony comes the brief Suite No.2, and immediately we are drawn into a much more personal, distinctive musical world. The subtly austere watercolour of the opening Idyll is succeeded by a harmonically spiked Burleske, its gnomic humour shot through with lyric grace reminiscent of Guridi or early Milhaud. The acerbic, fugal Allegro which ends the suite is equally to the point, somewhat like Holst in late neo-classic mode. If Isasi's material isn't quite up to the level of these masters, this is still a nice bon bouche - and much more alluring than the main course.
I've heard the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor hit better form than this elsewhere in Naxos's Spanish series, notably in their invaluable Guridi issue. There are patches of scrappy playing during the Symphony, and the Suite lacks ideal precision - all the more apparent when the engineering (from K&A's Eleanor Thomason) is up there with the very best I've heard from Naxos. The promise of Isasi's tone poems on the full-price Claves disc is not confirmed by the 2nd Symphony, but at super-bargain price this new CD is well worth having for the miniature Suite alone.
© Christopher Webber 2004